I have to admit that my main motivation for watching this film is the rare score from Mr Marvin Gaye but the film itself has a mixed reputation. The film was featured in Harry Medved’s classic book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time in 1978 whilst Complex included it on its 2009 list of "The 50 Best Blaxploitation Movies of All Time" (although that’s quite a long list…).
For me it’s OK, a professional job that’s just a bit too by-the-numbers to genuinely convince the audience that there’s peril for the main character, Mr T. Most of the moves are telegraphed and whilst there are good moments there’s very little surprise… That’s not enough to prevent it being an enjoyable watch and then there’s that score which gives the whole enterprise a touch of class the narrative doesn’t necessarily deserve.
Ivan Dixon’s direction is clinical if not anti-septic and Robert Hooks definitely has star presence as the unflappable Mr. T with his thousand dollar suits, fast cars and even faster women. He plays a private detective in South Central Los Angeles who is seemingly at ease with delivering out-sourced justice and who earns enough from his game and the odd pool hustle to keep himself in top quality cars, clothes and condominium. Then there’s the women, our story starts as T says “thanks and maybe later” to one pretty woman and it ends with an “how you doin’?” to another… all part of the charm and very 1972.
|Clothes, car and stride maketh the man...|
But there are plenty looking to knock T down a peg or three including LAPD captain Joe Marx (Bill Smithers) and the local mobsters looking to frame him for a hit with both Marx and the dominant gang boss, Big (Julius Harris) … the clue is in the name, brother (probably).
T is approached by Chalky (Paul Winfield) and his partner, Pete (Ralph Waite), who run dice games which they allege keep on getting robbed by a gang of four men. They persuade a reluctant T to sit ion and help protect their “club” but, what the PI doesn’t know is that they have one of Big’s main men who they plan to kill and place the blame on T… Their plan goes like clockwork and T witnesses the killing thinking the man was one of the robbers.
|Paul Winfield and Ralph Waite try to influence Mr T|
Almost immediately he’s the man in the frame as Chalky and Pete get the word out that T killed Big’s man a story that gains quick traction with Marx and Big’s men. T’s in a tough spot and while he’s able to more than match the policeman’s attempts to rattle him knows he has to be heard by Big. Using his cool – probably he’s had training at some point – T gains access to big man Big and convinces him enough of his innocence to gain the time to arrange a parley with Chalky and Pete.
The men are due to meet at the pool hall of his pal Jimmy (Bill Henderson) and yet as Big waits they are hit by a group of men dressed as policemen who shoot Big and knock T out. Firmly in the frame for the challenge on Big T needs to dig deep and work his way out with all sides heading in his direction.
|Julius Harris is Big|
Amongst all of this he, of course, makes time for his main lady love, Cleo (Paula Kelly with a stunning close-cropped hair-do!) who seems mostly there to give him some vulnerability as he’s clearly used to playing away.
There are plenty of tough-talking hombres surrounding Chalky and Pete but T begins to push back and soon Chalkie’s getting nervy and Pete is coming to the fore as the nastiest bad guy… The odds are stacked high but… you just have a feeling he might find a way…
Dusty verdict: Trouble Man ticks many boxes but necessarily in a way that causes the audience undue stress. It feels like a slick job well done, not a disaster – not at all – but not a surprise either.
It’s as fluent an exposition of the contemporary black cinema lingua Franca as you’ll find and there are the cars, the clothes and the women to admire. Mr T himself is an amalgam of stock character traits but he wears them as well as the suits, never taking things for anything other than what they actually are.
|Mr Robert Hooks|
|Jean Bell who was Playboy's second black centerfold|